Nepali overseas workers who remain behind

Current and aspiring EPS workers demonstrate at Mandala last week to pressure the Nepal government to facilitate their travel to South Korea. Photo: Ajaya Sodari

While most attention about Nepali migrant workers abroad has focused on their desperation to get on repatriation flights, their numbers pale in comparison to those who have opted to remain.

The Foreign Employment Board estimates that up to 400,000 Nepali overseas workers want to return to Nepal, out of the estimated 2 million workers in various countries besides India. For example, only 6,425 Nepali workers in Malaysia have registered to return home out of the 382,000 total in that country. The ratios are similar for Gulf states like Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia.

These numbers may increase in the coming days, especially for workers in a wait-and-watch mode whose decision depends on the status of their employers. Many may also decided to fly back when regular flights restart on 17 August.

As flights resume and restrictions are eased, there are expected to be a backlog of aspirant workers who will want to migrate or re-migrate. Korea-bound Nepalis under the Employment Permit Scheme (EPS) who were prevented from leaving for their jobs staged protests in Kathmandu this month.

“New and continuing workers were demonstrating to pressure the Nepal government to facilitate international flights and to proactively extend diplomatic coordination with the Korean government to ensure that our jobs are not lost because of these travel delays,” said Ajaya Sodari, who has a job waiting for him in Korea.

A Zoom Meeting between officials from Nepal and Israel on the recruitment of 500 Nepali caregivers through a government-to-government mechanism. Photo: Embassy of Nepal, Israel

As labour supplying countries grapple with the challenges of setting up strong repatriation and reintegration systems during the COVID-19 crisis, destination countries are also revisiting their own foreign worker policies.

It is a tough trade off because there is pressure to provide employment to nationals and a tendency to blame the contagion on foreigners, while at the same time the same migrant workers are indispensable during and after the pandemic.  

Malaysia, for example, recently announced that foreign workers will only be allowed in three sectors: construction, plantation and agriculture -- an effort to reduce the country’s reliance on foreign workers. This does not bode well for Nepalis there, a majority of whom are in manufacturing and services.

The three sectors comprise a mere 5.25% of the workers that Nepalis are in. It remains to be seen if this policy will be implemented, since many employers prefer the lower cost of migrant labour and nationals do not want to work in what are considered ‘dirty, dangerous and demeaning’ jobs .

Even large employers like the latex manufacturers Top Glove and WRP in Malaysia that have been despite losing exports to countries like the US for labour abuse, including withheld wages and debt bondage, are unlikely to replace their foreign workers.  

South Korea is seeing similar pressure from employers. A recent survey showed that 9 out of 10 small businesses reported shortages of migrant workers leading to disruptions in production. They have been pressuring the government to adopt necessary quarantine protocols so new workers can be allowed in.

“My flight was supposed to be at the end of March. My visa expired today after four months, but I am hopeful that my employer will renew it,” says Rohit Chand, who is waiting to join his EPS job in Korea. Thousands of others are also waiting to leave once flights are regular, but the uncertainty has been stressful. The government has started testing approved EPS workers who have to sign consent forms agreeing to quarantine for 14 days on arrival in Korea.

Ishwar Khadka in Pokhara has been selected under the EPS for a farm job in Korea, and is hopeful the end of his wait is near. But he says, “I need to take the medical tests and complete other paperwork in Kathmandu next week, but long-distance buses are not running yet, making it difficult.”

A new policy in Malaysia will allow foreigners to be hired in only three sectors (agriculture, construction and plantation) in which Nepalis have been traditionally underrepresented. Source: MINISTRY OF HUMAN RESOURCE, MALAYSIA, 2018

Qatar recently announced a Labour Re-Employment Platform that allows foreign workers who have lost jobs to obtain new employment. This is a welcome move for laid off migrants who do not want to return immediately. It also makes it easier for both employers and workers because paperwork and procedures of cross-border recruitment can be avoided at a time when there are limited flights.

There are an estimated 6,000 Nepali workers, mostly caregivers, in Israel, and the country is keen to take 500 new Nepali workers in the sector through its government-to-government mechanism.  

Sita Jamkatel spent 10 years in Israel as a caregiver starting out at Rs42,000 a month, and by the end of her stay was earning a monthly Rs180,000. Israel has strong labour protection rules, and allows workers to legally change employers.

“Israel gave me an opportunity to stand on my own feet and also provide for my son and mother,” says Jamkatel. “I was a good student, but was married young and it ended bitterly. My father was killed by the Maoists, so I had no one to depend on.”

Owing to high recruitment costs and malpractices, Israel stopped recruiting Nepali workers through the private agencies signed a pilot arrangement with the government in 2015. However, only 59 new workers were sent to Israel after that.

The labour market is expected to shrink due to the global economic fallout of the pandemic, but it will not be the same in how countries and sectors will respond to the intake of foreign workers.

Expert note that the crisis could actually be an opportunity for Nepal to mobilise the skills of returnees. In addition, foreign employment will persist given the indispensable role migrants play in destination countries. The pandemic has not removed drivers of migration such as ageing societies, declining birth rates, youth aspiration, labour shortages and  wage differentials between countries.

But there will also be intensified competition for contracted jobs, and this may translate to high recruitment costs and sub-par terms of employment that workers will be compelled to accept.

With necessary political will, recent examples also show that Nepal’s embassies abroad could lobby for voluntary redeployment programs to help displaced workers or government-to-government schemes to non-traditional destinations with stronger worker protection and higher incomes.

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